Where were you on 9-11? This is the question that floods social media every year on this date, sprinkled in amongst the annual tribute images and profile picture changes that are a nice distraction from the political hatred and other popular current events that have kept me from writing here for awhile. However, since this question comes up every year and it gets harder to type it out or discuss it each time, I’ll go ahead and tell you now so I can just re-post this article every year when the question is asked. So, where was I on September 11th, 2001?
I was on leave in California. I had been back a couple of months from my last deployment and I took my girlfriend (now ex-wife) home to meet my parents and experience the beauty of the west coast. My girlfriend and I were asleep when the first plane hit the first tower. I woke up to my Mom shaking me telling me I needed to turn on the news. My folks are not panic mongers and have excellent instincts for when a possible threat is real and they know what I do for a living, so Mom wasted no time getting me up. I ran out to the living room to see what was happening and just as the news started trying to piece together what just happened, I watched the second plane impact the second tower. I don’t know how long I was frozen in that moment, but I remember telling my parents to stay off the phone because I was about to get a call. We are going to war.
The recall came within minutes, but all flights in the U.S. had been cancelled and I was stuck with no way to get back to my unit on the other side of the country. All trains and buses were booked, all rental cars were booked, and all active duty, guard, and reserve mobility unit within driving distance was either grounded or already getting tasked for contingency operations. I was stuck. My unit was gearing up for war and I had no way of getting back.
Having worked on the Afghanistan CONPLAN for years to destroy the Taliban and Al Qaida, I knew immediately who was responsible and that whatever we were going to do in response was going to happen quickly. The news showed grainy footage of a Taliban ammo dump going up in flames from the only camera we had in Afghanistan at the time and I thought, “Shit! They fucking started without me!!!” Turned out to be an attack carried out by the Northern Alliance, but I was losing my shit because I didn’t want to miss out on this fight. I was more pissed off than I have ever been in my life and this was personal. I wanted to be the first one on the jet to bring the heat to the goatfuckers who did this to us. That was a Tuesday and unfortunately, I was stuck. I contemplated taking one of my parents’ cars and making the drive across country, but my unit advised me to stand by as they expected flights to resume in a day or two.
Being my girlfriend’s first time in Southern California, and knowing that she was as scared as everyone else about what was going on and what was about to happen, I stuck with the vacation plan and did the most American thing I could think of doing. I took her to Disneyland. We had a great time, but I was kind of pissed because half of the park was closed in the wake of the recent tragedy and not only did they still charge full price admission with no military discount, they fucking charged me again to get into the new Disneyland California park! FUCK YOU DISNEY!!! Regardless, we had a great day, I went surfing one more time, spent one more night with my hometown friends, and that following Friday morning, our originally scheduled return flight turned out to be the first to leave LAX since all flights were grounded. I kissed my folks goodbye and told them to keep their eyes on the news because payback was coming and I was going to bring the pain to the fuckers who attacked us.
Sidenote: LAX was a complete shit show. This was before Homeland Security, TSA, and all of the new security measures, so they were figuring everything out on the fly. The cops and the Guard troops were looking for a reason to shoot someone. While I admire their spirit, it was a bit overbearing. I always travel with a firearm, so when I declared it at baggage check, the lady behind the counter told me I had to unlock the case, hold the weapon up, and show her that it was unloaded. I said, “Are you out of your fucking mind? I’ll get shot 50 times if I hold up a weapon! Here’s the key, you check it all you want.” She made me do it anyway and as expected, I had four cops on me the second I lifted it out of the case. The lady behind the counter, completely nonchalant about the whole thing, told them I was following instructions, I showed them my military ID and explained that I was the guy heading out to get the payback they were looking for, and everyone chilled out. Whew….
Finally got back home and reported to my unit. I asked them what the status was on our Afghanistan plans and found out they hadn’t been updated, let alone even looked at, since I took my one year vacation in Korea. Fuck! Looks like we’re going to have to make this shit up on the fly! Two weeks of 24/7 planning and we arrived in theater, working on the plan right up to landing at our base downrange. A week later, 7 October 2001, we pulled the trigger and unleashed hell on the enemy on D+0 of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM. It was incredibly challenging because we had no ground intel from Afghanistan and intel collection at that time was limited at best for this kind of enemy, mostly because counter-terrorism wasn’t our primary focus at that time. The only ones who knew anything weren’t sharing what they knew and practically handcuffed since President Clinton refused to give the order to kill UBL when we had the chance, which led to the clusterfuck TLAM fiasco in Afghanistan and Sudan in 1998, which subsequently led to AQ getting pissed and motivating them to drive planes into our buildings. Regardless, we learned quickly and did things we have never done before with airpower alone, working with the few special operators we had on the ground and their Northern Alliance / local warlord contacts.
This is where we learned the true value of using RPAs to support CAS, pattern of life development, using coordinate seeking weapons for CAS, and many other incredible and significant “firsts” for ISR supporting ops. No books or historical accounts will truly capture how much we actually accomplished in those first few months. The successes we had were nothing short of amazing, shit we could never do today with the amount of scrutiny and regulation on our processes and authorities thanks to the enemy and our own haters in America and abroad being better at manipulating our own media PR against us than we are at getting them to convey the actual truth of how we fight wars, but I’m not bitter…
According to the reports I got, one of my strikes killed one of the top 9-11 planners, another hot night resulted in over 700 enemy KIA, I found out after I got home that one of my strikes took out 150+ while saving 16 awaiting CSAR after their helo went down, and between 7-14 December 2001, my strikes supposedly killed Bin Laden seven times, two of those being within 20 minutes of each other in location over 30 miles apart in the Tora Bora stronghold. Yeah, that last one turned out to not work out as we all hoped. A lot of highlights and I would have to write a book to tell you all about it. A lot of good, a lot of bad, and a shitload of ugly. I’ll save that for the book, if I ever write one, but I’m not a SEAL or a Ranger, so I doubt anyone would buy it anyway.
On my last shift in late December, my DO runs up to me in the middle of prosecuting a target and tells me I have to pack my shit and get on the next plane home. I asked him why and he said because I already had a deployment that year, I was eligible for a remote tour credit and they had to get me out of there ASAP (this was back in the day before everyone spent countless days deployed and remote tour credit was an assignment management nightmare for the Air Force and the rules weren’t written in pencil). I declined and told him I don’t give a fuck about a remote tour credit because I still had a job to do. There were still bad guys out there and I wasn’t finished yet. He said he wasn’t sure what he should do. I said, “Let me stay and kill bad guys, I win. Send me home before Christmas, I win. If I have any say, I prefer to stick around and do the job and I request you consult the boss (O-6) and his boss (O-9).” Four hours later, I was told to catch the next bus back to the barracks and pack my shit. Fuck…
While I was partially relieved to be able to go home, I was more pissed than anything. Despite the damage we had inflicted on the enemy, we still had no strategy. No desired end state. We were still fighting and ground forces were starting to flow in who needed air support. Regardless, I was given the boot and told to go home.
My room mate at our deployed base, I’ll call him “Bob,” also happened to be my room mate who lived with me and my girlfriend back home. He left right before me and I told him to feed her a story that I was moving to a different location and that I would be out of contact for a few days. Hey, if I have to leave, I might as well surprise her for Christmas! I called her parents and explained my plan to return home and surprise her by driving her up north to spend Christmas with them. They had never met me and were thrilled to help and had to fight her to make sure she didn’t plan to fly home for the holiday. I flew in late on the night of 18 December. My Captain, and one of my best friends in this world, gave me a ride back to my house. I quietly entered the house and went to our bedroom. I woke her up in the dark and I said, “Merry Christmas, baby! I’m home!” She looked at me very confused and half asleep and responded, “Bob?” “No, it’s not BOB! It’s me!!!” It was actually pretty funny and I gave her shit about it right up until our divorce.
I called my unit the next morning to report I was back and they said, “Welcome home! Don’t unpack….” OIF was on the horizon, but that is another story for the book. I drove us north to spend Christmas with my girlfriend’s family and it was a great time. I was happy to be back and to meet what would become my future in-laws (now out-laws). They took me to New York City for my first time and I was so blown away by what I saw. I have seen movies, pictures, etc. but no depiction of NYC compared to what I saw when I was there in December of 2001. Aside from all of the holiday decorations, the tree at Rockefeller Center, and the beautiful sunshine we had on that cold day, I saw something I have never seen in any post card. Every building, every car, every taxi cab, every bus, every light pole, every horse-drawn buggy, everything had an American Flag posted and waving. It looked like a nuclear explosion of American patriotism! Patriotic themes and slogans written in every window. Everyone in the city so often portrayed as an overcrowded sewer of anger so happy and kind to everyone they encountered and so proud to be Americans and New Yorkers. I had to stand there and stare in shock at how wonderful this moment was. That was the first time I cried in public.
Toward the end of the day, my first time in NYC, we walked by Saint Paul’s Church on Broadway. This was the makeshift memorial site for the people who died in the attacks on the World Trade Center a few months prior. Many of the buildings in the area were still covered in black and gray ash and looking down Fulton Street, which was still barricaded off by NYPD, I could see the wreckage of the towers that were still being sifted through and cleaned up. Over three months after it happened and I could still smell the burned flesh in the air. After paying our respects at Saint Paul’s and placing our tribute amongst the others, I turned away to contemplate everything this country and that city had been through, the war I fought for what seemed like forever, but was only a few short months, amazed by the pride and resilience of the people around me, and I looked down and saw the one and only thing that could ruin this day. On one of the police barriers in front of the church memorial, someone had written the words, “I support Muslim extremism.”
I thought I knew and understood hatred, considering all I had done prior to coming home, but I had not been formally introduced to hate until that very moment. My girlfriend saw me frozen, staring at that barrier, and asked me if I was alright. I pointed to the words and told her, “I have to go back. I’m not finished yet. I have bad people to kill.” I never took time to analyze my own words and have no interest in doing so and do not welcome the opinions of others, it was just the honest first thought that formed a verbal expression at that very moment. My girlfriend did everything she could to bring me back to reality and I managed to recover and get back to enjoying the day. Drinking beers at Tavern On The Green helped big time.
Christmas was a huge success, it was a great return home, and it was a great trip all together. I have been back to NYC many times since and while it is always a good time (in very small doses because I fucking hate crowds), it is always a reminder of the fact that I didn’t finish the job and we are still fighting the same enemy, in many more countries than we were when this whole thing started. Sadly, that patriotism has since faded from NYC and, in my observation, has degenerated back to the grim sociopathic cesspool we often see depicted in the movies. If only the pride and the patriotism were as enduring as the war we continue to fight to protect those who have all but forgotten both. Imagine how strong our country would be then. I’ve seen it. I miss it. I refuse to lose faith in it. I will never give up on it. I will never forget.